The Poverty of Punishment

Jail courtyard

The failure of punishment to deter harmful behaviour is glaringly apparent in the daily choices of tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians.

The claims are familiar: punishing the wrongdoing of others acts as a deterrent. We talk about miscreants “learning their lesson” or “getting their just deserts”, or if not them, the application of pain or discomfort “delivers a message to others” which generally prevents crime – should someone dare contemplate a criminal act. We believe these things based on our experiences and the stories we tell or hear.

So why doesn’t it work?

Punishment requires that unwanted behaviour is prevented from occurring or reoccurring; if the forbidden behaviour is not extinguished, then punishment did not occur. However, we explain recidivism (repeat offending) not so much by the utter failure of punishment, but by the absence of severity, certainty or a swiftness of its application. Punishment only has to be more strategically applied for it to deliver the behavioural changes which it promises. However, since the days when pick-pockets risked death while working the crowds at London’s public executions during the Tudor reign, the evidence is stacked against this shibboleth.

If deterrent effect of punishment is the threat of unpleasant consequences, then we have many thousands of citizens who fail to be punished for their socially irresponsible behaviours. Consider the number of people who willfully engage in one or more risky, life-threatening behaviours:

In all of the above harms, the risks are well-known to the population. But  the prevalence of these behaviours suggests that the consequences (or punishment) is ineffective when it comes in the form of an analogous outcome: lethal or injurious car accidents, cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or addiction.

If the punishment of these common and harmful behaviours does not deter “ordinary” Canadians, why should we expect it to fix “criminals”? Maybe we don’t understand how punishment “works”, or if it works at all.



Tories take credit for drop in crime

In a recent tongue-in-cheek Facebook post, I asked how long it would take before the Canadian government took credit for the annual drop in crime which was reported this week by Statistics Canada.

I didn’t believe any politician would have the effrontery to make such a claim, but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says that that keeping the bad guys in longer lowers the crime rate.

Reality Check:

  • The government provides no evidence that their get-tough-on-crime policies are responsible for lower rates of crime. They can’t be criticized for making the “correlation does not mean causation” error because their statements are too vague to identify causes.
  • The available evidence from the United States and Canada says that mandatory minimums have not delivered their anticipated returns in public safety[1].
  • A review of the research for the government by the Department of Justice in 2002 shows that incarceration has little or no impact on recidivism[2].
  • A submission by the Canadian Psychological Association to the Senate Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs earlier this year presented research showing that mandatory minimum sentences are expensive, do not reduce crime, and are unjust.
  • Canada’s crime rate has been dropping since the early 1990s, irrespective of the government in power or their particular crime control policies[3].

[1] Fradella, H. F. (2000). Mandatory Minimum Sentences: Arizona’s Ineffective Tool for the Social Control of Driving Under the Influence. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 11(2), 113-135. doi: 10.1177/0887403400011002002

Joan, P. (2011). Beyond the Prison Bubble. Federal Probation, 75(1), 2.

Nsereko, D. D. N. (1999). Minimum sentences and their effect on judicial discretion. Crime Law and Social Change, 31(4), 363-384.

Schlesinger, T. (2011). The Failure of Race Neutral Policies: How Mandatory Terms and Sentencing Enhancements Contribute to Mass Racialized Incarceration. Crime & Delinquency, 57(1), 56-81. doi: 10.1177/0011128708323629

Welsh, B. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2012). Science, politics, and crime prevention: Toward a new crime policy. Journal of Criminal Justice, 40(2), 128-133. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2012.01.008

[2] Gabor, T., & Crutcher, N. (2002). Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditures. 43. Retrieved from

[3] Statistics Canada. (2011). Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2011 (Catalogue 85-002-X). Retrieved from

Justice Minister Nicholson: Do you really want to control crime?

October 30 2011

Dear Mr. Nicholson,

Like you, I too want our country to be a safe place where criminal victimization is a rare occurrence. However, I have concerns about Bill C-10 which is currently being rushed through Parliament.

Bill C-10 is uninformed by the negative experiences which the USA has had with their own mandatory minimum sentencing laws at the state and federal levels. Your government’s declaration to control crime appears to be without the advice from experts in Canada and abroad who argue that there are more effective solutions than a simplistic “lock ‘em up” response. In your statements to the public, you invoke “victims of crime” as the beneficiaries of the government’s crime bill. It’s difficult to see how your advocacy for  prison solutions will help victims.

By putting people in jail for non-violent crimes like the possession of cannabis plants, the government is exposing these prisoners to criminal value systems, the risk of physical violence, and the prospect that imprisonment will foreclose their chances for social reintegration upon release. Given those risks, are we likely to see law-abiding citizens emerge from Canadian jails?

Sadly, the assumptions behind the laws which the government is about to invoke have never been put to rational or empirical scrutiny. The policies which you advocate blindly assume that the threat of punishment is 1) known to  2) rational offenders who will 3) calculate the costs and benefits of a criminal act and 4) choose not to make criminal decisions. The real world is different from what is envisaged by the forthcoming laws because

  1. few ordinary Canadians know the maximum sentence for any crime except murder, let alone the group to which you refer to as “criminals”;
  2. offenders often make choices in an irrational state of mind caused by alcohol, drugs, desperation, or with brains which are compromised by neurophysiological damage at birth (e.g., fetal alcohol syndrome);
  3. criminal decisions are rational in the minds of some offenders when faced with the alternatives;
  4. criminal choices may be specific to a particular developmental period in a person’s life (e.g, youth crime) and should not mortgage their future with a prison sentence.

Your government’s emphasis on criminal deterrence through punishment will expand the enforcement and corrections bureaucracies at great cost to ordinary Canadians. If asked, most Canadians would prefer to redirect money for jails into education, health care and early childhood intervention.

Crime policies must be guided by research and have an evaluation component built into them. Is your government prepared to have an independent evaluation of the consequences of Bill C-10 in five years to see if crime and rates have been affected? The absence of evaluation makes your government’s declarations to control crime a somewhat hollow and costly objective.

I ask that you stop Bill C-10 and establish an independent commission of diverse citizens and experts to create an evidence-based crime prevention plan for Canada.

John Anderson, PhD
Chair, Criminology Department
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, BC V9R 5S5